I’ve been unfairly slow in writing my review of Elizabeth Minnich’s book, The Evil of Banality: On the Life and Death Importance of Thinking. This is unfair because this is the kind of book everyone should read. It’s that good and that important. I may even use the cliché and say it’s timely. We live in a post-truth age, where fake news seems to manipulate everyone and keep them from acting responsibly, that is, from thinking.
Let me start with an example from my own backyard. I live in Barcelona in Catalonia, Spain, a place that has really been put on the map in the last few months. Here, Catalan separatist or nationalists play with people’s emotions and try to generate a certain belief, regardless of whether it’s true or not. For example, Spain is not a dictatorship; people are free in Catalonia to express their opinions. The Catalan language is not threatened; rather it’s spoken everywhere. All things the Catalan separatist claim. Furthermore, although I disagree with the imprisonment of certain Catalan politicians, they are not in prison for their ideas but for conducting illegal activities. While the Spanish government is not a perfect democracy, it is, nevertheless, still a democracy.
Thoughtlessness can also be related to the misuse of some concepts or ideas such as freedom of expression. Recently, a Catalan school teacher blamed one of his student in front of the whole class because the student’s father worked in the national police force. The teacher claimed that the police beat everyone and even killed someone. Afterwards, a Catalan politician said that, in Catalan schools, teachers have freedom to express themselves. That is, the teachers are free to say and act as they see fit. This is an extreme example, and not common, but I know that in Denmark such behavior would cause numerous problems and lead to scrutinizing the schools. In Catalonia, politicians seem to lack the capacity to reflect critically on their own behavior and ideas.
What does this have to do with Minnich’s book? Everything. She addresses how evil emerges when we “go along thoughtlessly—without paying attention, reflecting, questioning.” In other words, our lack of thinking, of critically evaluating what happens—including our own thoughts and behavior—can lead to many evils in this world. Thus, critical thinking is mandatory for all democracies. Minnich asks “What, how, are they thinking? Are we thinking? . . . How could they make sense of what they were doing?” These questions are alarming when put in a context like apartheid, Rwanda, or the sexual abuse of women and children.
The title of her book is an allusion to Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, where Arendt concluded that Nazi crimes against Jews were also crimes against humanity. She showed how a totalitarian government affects every bureaucracy by dehumanizing them and motivating people to act without questioning. Arendt called this “sheer thoughtlessness.”
Minnich continues, “I found myself reversing her (in)famous phrase and, having done so, thinking that perhaps it would have helped had she spoken, as she did not, of ‘the evil of banality,’ rather than—or, as I now think, in addition to—‘the banality of evil.’ To think of evil as ‘banal’ was then altogether too difficult.” Here, Minnich stresses that when someone has done something wrong, we tend to ask them, “What were you thinking?”
The foundational thesis of her book is that people who are doing evil are not thinking.
Minnich offers many examples in her book: From fiction like Camus’ The Plague to Darfur and Rwanda. She also develops two key concepts to help us understand the relationship between evil and thoughtlessness: intensive versus extensive evil and intensive versus extensive good.
Extensive evil refers to horrific harm-doing that persists for months, even years. For example, genocide, slavery, apartheid, financial exploitation, mistreatment of workers, or, as has recently become evident, when “powerful” men exploit and abuse women. It’s tempting to see the kind of people who do these things as psychopaths or sick. (I can’t help but see Weinstein and his ilk as sick.) However, Minnich emphasizes that these activities are done by inconspicuous people like your quiet next-door neighbor. She mentions several alarming examples from South Africa and Rwanda. And here we must collectively take responsibility if we witness any kind of wrongdoing. For instance, this is happening right now through the #MeToo Campaign. Such campaigns can relieve some of the pain; they can help, encourage, and illustrate that another world is possible, one of trust, respect, and equality. Similarly, I would argue that when a school system becomes political, promoting rigid nationalism and legitimizing hate, as in some cases in Catalonia, then we must look at this with care—even if we only speak of a handful of concrete examples. Ignorance should never be an option.
Minnich emphasizes that we should be careful not to confuse extensive evil with intensive evil. Intensive evils “are great harms done by one or a few people. In that sense, they are contained . . . When they burst into our lives, almost all of us are genuinely spectators, not participants, not enablers, not perpetrators.”
She says extensive evil spreads like a plague, whereas intensive evil is like a poison. The book is full of such precise literary and metaphorical examples that make it not only a pleasure to read but also easy to follow.
The problem, Minnich says, is that we think of extensive evil as intensive. That is, we may convince ourselves that only a few schools are indoctrinating their students, only a few men are raping women, only a few people are sexually abusing children, only a few organizations are over-stressing and discriminating against their workforce. “Thinking of all evils as if they were intensive—taboo, smacking of possession, shocking to still-functioning conventional society, hence readily felt to be anti-rational—blinds us to the on-the-ground realities especially of extensive evils that are enabled, instead, by such familiar motivators as careerism and greed . . .”
What to do? Well, we could all strengthen our vison. It’s a matter of “seeing, admitting, and thinking through the realization that there have been, and somewhere now are, times in which what ‘everyone is doing’ is morally, politically, deadly wrong.”
Luckily, we can also cultivate critical thinking. Through education, we can try to eradicate automatic thinking, like when some Catalan separatist always declare, “It’s Spain’s fault.” Automatic thinking is just confirming our default-setting without any reflection about what actually takes place.
In the last part of the book, Minnich offers a beautiful reminder of what philosophy is and what it can do. “Socrates was a practitioner and teacher of thinking and not knowledge.” That is, he was open, curious, and constantly questioning not only why and what people were thinking but also how they were living according to their thoughts or beliefs.
Like Arendt, Minnich stresses how stupidity and thoughtlessness are not the same thing. “Very smart people can be very thoughtless just like the rest of us.” This emphasizes that we need to be aware of how the system is nurturing a certain kind of behavior. Here, many studies in social psychology can inspire readers who wish to explore this further.
Still, some may ask, how can we really know if we are trying to critically and openly assess what is happening? Minnich says it clearly: “Self-respect is earned not by recognition, praise, status, net worth, power, influence or anything else externally conferred but by continuing to recognize ourselves as someone we can live with, and not be ashamed?”
I agree. I think of how some politicians seem incapable of being ashamed. They are determined to play the game well, to advance their career, and to achieve their objectives, regardless of the disagreement and suffering of the people they are supposed to govern. Is it arrogance? Minnich notes, “. . . Sometimes we do stop and think, and simply say, at the right moment, the No that is actually a profound Yes to what we will not violate because that is something we just cannot do and still live with ourselves.”
Yet, some people never seem to stop and think. How can some live with themselves?
Elizabeth Minnich’s The Evil of Banality merits a better and more thorough review than what I can provide here. Nevertheless, it deserves to be read. Recommend it to your friends, especially if you know someone who is in charge of other people’s destinies. It is well written, very well argued, full of good examples, and it is inspiring.
See also philosopher Skye Cleary’s interview with Elizabeth Minnich here.